escaping the caduceus of technology-fuelled privatisation and student debt

When the culture’s drowning in a bad dream/Save myself, save myself and

When the old religion is the new greed/Save myself, save myself and

They sabotaged the levee, killed gris gris/Save myself, save myself and

When the vultures copyright the word free/Save myself, I got to save myself

Willy Mason. 2007. Save Myself.

I: assertion and the rate of profit

In a recent Blackboard Inc newsletter we were informed that:

Education is changing and universities face multiple challenges to remain competitive. Attracting students is only part of the challenge, retaining them requires engagement. With growing attention on course quality and higher student expectations, making sure that students are getting the most out of their education experience has become increasingly important.

It’s not enough to simply deliver great courses, they demand more. Students live in a world of social media, instant access to information and on-demand service. They expect faster responses to assignments, interactive course materials, grade tracking, and integrated learning resources.

This narrative has emerged from a relatively narrow set of evaluative spaces, that are not framed through significance testing or modelling, but rather on the structural need for capital to seek out rents or profits from new educational spaces, based on either the reduction in the circulation time of commodities or the creation of new services, applications or information flows.

This also underpins the cultural re-framing of education as a space from inside which efficiencies are required, and from where impact becomes a pivotal, abstract currency. Thus the JISC re-frames its newsletters around efficiency, effectiveness and impact. Cost reduction through a range of services and benefits realisation form the background noise of this new normal. Witness the supporting your institution pages at Witness this month’s jisc-announce message about e-infrastructure

The point here is not that evidence for investment should be divorced from an analysis of cost, but that it forms the dominating background noise, against which it becomes almost impossible to define a new form of value or to judge social worth. So we hear noise from Blackboard Inc. or Pearson Inc. about efficiencies/impact/value and our analysis is reduced to money, and then we forget to question why and how those corporations are lobbying in the USA over access to public schools. Witness this report from the Portland Press Herald that “Documents expose the flow of money and influence from corporations that stand to profit from state leaders’ efforts to expand and deregulate digital education.”

The terrain for corporate profits is further reinforced through state-subsidised infrastructural investments. Thus, in terms of our e-infrastructure, we are reassured that

The investment will build Janet6 the next generation of the UK’s national research and education network, adding value across the sector from high-end research to universities, colleges and schools. It will also enable research to stay competitive on both a national and international level, and support the £60bn contribution that higher education brings to the UK economy.

Value, competition, the UK economy: this is the background noise that drowns out everything else inside the need to crack new markets for new services to overcome the historical tendency of the rate of profit to fall. And this is important because we are told in this article on Pearson ‘Education’ – who are these people? that

The U.S. spends more than $500 billion a year to educate kids from ages five through 18. The entire education sector, including college and mid-career training, represents nearly 9 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, more than the energy or technology sectors.

Critical here is an understanding of who, exactly is trying to develop and sell services into this space, based on the rate of profit. The answer given is that public education is having policy developed and implemented based on evidence and a series of mythologies that form the background narrative of people less focused on education:

In other words, Pearson’s chief operating officers, who are also heavily invested in the company, are busy trading stocks and racking up dollars and pounds while the corporation’s financial situation is shaky. And their solution is to sell, sell, sell their products in the United States.

The current vogue for the private sector to use evidence to drive an allegedly neutral cultural and political space for policy, is amplified through analytics and big data. These tend to frame the expectations of the voiceless student as a cipher for an untheorised view of impact, efficiencies, personalisation, scaling, and service-led innovation. There is no space to discuss structural inequalities that amplify issues of autonomy or agency, or the ways in which consent is addressed. In this process, openness or transparency or accountability is no substitute for political engagement. Thus, this article on Lies, Damned Lies and Open Data argues that

Now we must renew the much larger battle over the role of evidence in public policy. On the surface, the open data movement was about who could access and use government data. It rested on the idea that data was as much a public asset as a highway, bridge, or park and so should be made available to those who paid for its creation and curation: taxpayers. But contrary to the hopes of some advocates, improving public access to data—that is, access to the evidence upon which public policy is going to be constructed—does not magically cause governments’, and politicians’, desire for control to evaporate. Quite the opposite. Open data will not depoliticize debate. It will force citizens, and governments, to realize how politicized data is, and always has been.

II: the fallacy of problem-solving

Thus, the issue becomes one of what, structurally, is that evidence/data to be used for? Is it to be used for problem-solving, or to tweak the ways in which, for example, higher education is to be structured, funded and governed, in the name of impact, efficiencies and extant value-forms? Is technology inside the academy to be used to drive privatisation agendas that are in the name of competition and profiteering, because privatisation and the free market is the only available lever for driving efficiencies inside a higher education that is recalibrated around money?

Or is it to be collected and used to question whether the free market, and technology-firms that sell solutions inside that market and for whom the bottom line is the bottom line, are the only possible ways of reconstructing higher education as a public good. Is it to be collected and used to question the funding, regulation and governance of public higher education, and to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy of the market and the corporation? In fact, are the power relationships and political positions that frame the space in which big data, learning analytics and evidence are collected and used for policy, our first reference point for a more meaningful definition of the use of technology inside higher education? This demands a critical approach to unravelling the neoliberal, transnational advocacy networks that make up so many of the private corporations now enmeshed inside our education systems.

In this we might ask whether it is possible to move beyond problem-solving analysis to a critique of the structural foundations upon which our evidence base emerges. This demands that we re-engage with the ways in which technology is used by corporations, non-governmental advocacy organisations, and governments, in order to re-frame cultural and educational positions, in the name of consumption and the rate of profit. In this, we are left with questions around: who consents to the adoption of technological solutions inside universities and why? On what basis are those assumptions taken as read? To what extent does money, in the form of value, efficiencies or impact, shape or coerce education and pedagogic practice, so that other social or co-operative forms of value are marginalised? How are technologies and allied services co-opted as allegedly neutral ciphers in this process?

III: the evidence and practice of student debt

The risk is that the background noise of the rule of money, which drives the recalibration of educational contexts, is amplified by the reality of student debt. Witness this recent New York Times piece on debt collectors cashing in on student debt, which is regarded as a new oil well:

With an outstanding balance of more than $1 trillion, student loans have become a silver lining for the debt collection industry at a time when its once-thriving business of credit card collection has diminished and the unemployment rate has made collection a challenge.

One student in the article highlights that “I will never have my head above water”, and recounts that she faced

a crushing reality: she still owes too much money and makes too little to pay it off. A marketing coordinator for a law firm, she filed for bankruptcy last year because she could not afford her mortgage, car payment and student loans. She lost the house, but still owes $115,000 in student loans, both private and federal. Under income-based repayment, she pays $325 a month on her federal loans; she also pays $250 a month on her private loans.

This individuated, anti-social fear of debt, or of the disciplining of sections of our society through what is becoming known as “delinquent debt” is also witnessed in this article on the United States of student debt where “Just like mortgages and the housing industry, student debt has become an important condition for sales of the commodity higher education.” In part, this is less about intergenerational justice and the legacy of the baby boom, and more about class and the loading of an indentured future onto segments of the working population for whom access to services funded by the public purse is now closed. As Zerohedge recently argued

[there are huge numbers of] impressionable wannabe college grads for whom college is the only hope out there, no matter the cost. Sadly, the cost is rising exponentially, and as we showed recently, total Federally-funded student loan debt outstanding is now at all time highs. Luckily, the cost of the debt is at record lows. Sadly, the principal will still need repayment, as cohort after cohort of unemployed students will soon find out, and also find out that there is no discharge of student debt in bankruptcy: it is, indeed, the proverbial gift that keeps on taking.

Worse still, as this post from Zerohedge reminds us, it is private (rather than public) debt, and excessive leveraging of debt that tends to push capital into structural crises. The leveraging of private debt through excessive student loans, whilst giving a short-term financial fix for some leaves a deeper structural legacy related to crises of demand. So we end up with an inflated set of financial assets that bear no resemblance to the value of real assets in the real economy, and in the process of deleveraging the ponzi scheme leaves those individuals with high levels of debt at most risk. We are therefore reminded of the need for debt jubilees because

[We’re going into] a never-ending depression unless we repudiate the debt, which never should have been extended in the first place.

IV: escaping the caduceus of technology-fuelled privatisation and student debt

*caduceus (Ka-doo’-seus): originates from the Greek “karykeion”, itself derived from “karyx” meaning a herald’s badge or staff. The caduceus was worn or displayed by Roman surgeons, official messengers, and by military emissaries to signify a cessation of hostilities on the battlefield. It symbolized the herald of the gods, as well, Mercury in Rome and Hermes in Greece, who carried a winged wand on which were coiled two serpents, symbolizing male and female. Legend was that Hermes came upon two serpents at war and, in his beguiling manner placed a staff, which Aesculapius had given him (also a symbol used in Medicine), between them wereupon entwining with it, they ceased warring and began loving one another thus expressing unity, fertility, and peace. The caduceus is also a recognized symbol of commerce and negotiation, in which balanced exchange and reciprocity are recognized as ideals.

This is the world that we now enter. Where bailouts meet austerity, where the realities of a quadrillion dollars of debt underpin politics in the United States, where student debt and therefore student education forms part of a coming sub-prime crisis, and where in spite of the rhetoric about higher education and employability, the realities are youth unemployment and long-term falls in real wages, or precarious employment.

And I haven’t even mentioned a future framed by oil, rising oil prices, or carbon. Yet, these matter because as Roger Pielke Jr argues:

We can simplify these four factors even further. Population and income together are simply GDP, or aggregate economic activity, and the production and consumption of energy reflect the technologies of energy supply and demand. The resulting Kaya Identity — as his equation has come to be called — simply says:

Emissions = GDP x Technology

With this simple equation before us, we can see the fundamental challenge to reducing emissions: A rising GDP, all else equal, leads to more emissions. But if there is one ideological commitment that unites nations and people around the world in the early 21st century, it is that GDP growth is non-negotiable. Right now, leaders on six different continents are focused on efforts to grow GDP, and with it jobs and wealth. They’re not as worried about emissions.

The concern then is that these factors become reinforcing. That the drive for GDP and growth recalibrates the University around the rule of money. That inside this space an agenda of privatisation based on evidential assertion or problem-solving theory is presented as de-politicised and normative, and enables technology firms, working with private equity, transnational finance, think tanks and politicians to lever open public education for profit. That student debt becomes a key power source for this drive to privatise in the name of efficiencies, scale, value-for-money and impact, and in fact generates a pedagogic and structural view of student-as-consumer that further recalibrates higher education and the use of technologies inside that sector. That agency and autonomy are framed through consumption, revealed in-part through technology and technique. That these factors amplify the neoliberal feedback loops that target public education as a source of profit. That in our refusal to critique these loops, or question the background noise that forms our new normal, we consent to our own coercion inside techniques for further value extraction.

A starting point for pushing back or for dampening this background noise is the need to analyse the structural nature of the evidence that is presented to us, in order to question power and the political positions that technologically reinforce a student experience that is drive by debt. Debt and technology, entwining and beguiling education, like a caduceus.

So taking that Blackboard Inc. newsletter with which I started, we might ask the following questions, and begin the hard-work of defining more co-operative alternative solutions.

  • Why education is changing, and whether competition and the free market are really the best mechanisms for addressing the challenges that are faced by universities?
  • How attracting, retaining and engaging students might be geared to solving societal problems related to abundance and scarcity of resources as outlined by Pielke Jr., rather than preparing them as consumers for a debt-driven existence?
  • In the face of global, structural crises, and the prevalence of student debt as a mechanism for the accumulation of surplus value, how might we challenge the neoliberal ideas that underpin “course quality and higher student expectations”?
  • Do we really understand what students demand beyond their role as consumers of social media, instant access to information and on-demand services? How might we engage students in a world beyond faster responses to assignments, interactive course materials, grade tracking, and integrated learning resources geared solely for employability and servicing debt?
  • Is it possible to imagine a world that uses technology to be against-and-beyond the increasing velocity in which our educational experiences are circulated as commodities?

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